There is a classic anxiety about technology: that it can lead to a lack of individuality and spiritual emptiness. Why might this be?
The place to start is with the lack of control technology can bring about in our lives. This may seem counter-intuitive since it is normally thought that technology is what helps us attain more control in our lives. Of course it does. However, while on the one hand technology is freeing and allows us not to have to labour to do basic things and meet basic needs, it also reduces our individuality, hence our freedom and control over our own lives. Horkheimer and Adorno see this dialectic clearly:
Technology has changed human beings from children into persons. But all such progress of individuation has been at the expense of the individuality in whose name it took place, leaving behind nothing except individuals’ determination to pursue their own purposes alone (Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 125).
We are so overtaken by technology’s ability to free us from basic things that we no longer feel the need to develop the abilities needed to create ourselves in a spiritually fulfilling way. With the world becoming smoother and smoother, we no longer face the necessity of having to struggle for creative expression; it is simply there for us. Creative expression now exists for us in a tamed, ready-to-use state. We click the boxes on Facebook profiles to establish who we are and who we are friends with (Is this really an act of self-creation? Are Facebook friends really friends?). Or, to take another example: MIDI devices that are now available even on smartphones (Are smartphones really smart?) allow us to easily and simply ‘create’ music – though the ‘creation’ of this music can only be invidiously compared to the creation of music with or for actual instruments.
In both Facebook and MIDI we see cases of ‘lock-in’ (Cf Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget Ch. 1 & 2; and this YouTube interview on “Conversations with History“): we no longer have to struggle to learn an instrument properly or learn the different capabilities of instruments, and we are stuck with the discrete mathemitized notes (in the case of MIDI). We no longer need to work to express our individuality in new and creative ways and put in the hard work of building genuine friendships (in the case of Facebook). Self-creation is no longer a process of self-activity. We no longer have to develop our own powers or own capabilities through our deeds and actions, but instead simply purchase them or click a box.
This is not to say that there are no useful and helpful aspects of MIDI and Facebook. There certainly are. The issue is, rather, the real potential these devices have to conceal other possibilities because they represent the easier, more convenient way to attain a goal.
Second, having pre-made channels through which to differentiate ourselves leads to a sense of self-alienation and alienation from others. In turn, we become aggressive towards ourselves and each other. We start to feel the need to compete rather than individuate ourselves through creative acts. We are bored of our phones after four months because we need to keep up and out-do others in order to feel like individuals. We do all this through a savage control of ourselves rather than through spending our time and energy for the betterment of ourselves and others. We simply purpose our own ‘self-interest’.
Marcuse put it this way:
The technological rationality inculcated in those who attend to this apparatus has transformed numerous modes of external compulsion and authority into modes of self-discipline and self-control . . . . The crowd is an association of individuals who have been stripped of all ‘natural’ and personal distinctions and reduced to the standardized expression of their abstract individuality, namely, the pursuit of self-interest. As member of a crowd, man has become the standardized subject of brute self-preservation . . . . The crowd is thus the antithesis of ‘community,’ and the perverted realization of individuality. (Marcuse, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” pp. 148-150; Cf Hurbert Dreyfus, On the Internet Ch. 4)
The connection here to Hegel’s struggle for recognition (see episode 35 and 36) is obvious (Cf Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality; episode 23). We can individuate ourselves in to order gain recognition from the other through the competitive and self-disciplinary mode that is exemplified in the trend of people changing their phones after only four weeks. This ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, manifests itself in shame, envy, vanity and contempt.
What Marcuse seems to be claiming is that this way of trying to gain recognition from a crowd, das Man, simply alienates us from others. This is because we do not see each other as equals in a community. Rather, we simply see the other as someone to outdo, to be better than, or to catch up to. We do what everyone else is doing, simply to keep up or out do. It is not that we really want that new phone; our ‘want’ is due to mimetic desire – a desire based on a third term, viz., what the crowd does.
Again, we can see this in the standardization of expression that is linked to lock-in, as discussed above. It is not that these things can’t be self-expressive but rather that it is much harder for one to break out of the standardization these technologies implement (Cf the Pirsig episode on this issue). Take the simple shift from Myspace to Facebook as an example. Myspace allowed everyone to customize their own page, add music etc. Facebook is different. Facebook forces everyone to use the same layout, the same colours and systematically limits how and what individuals use to express themselves. Twitter seems even worse in this respect. It forces us to be part of the crowd and the pressure intensifies once everyone you know is using it – we become afraid that, by taking a break from it, we’ll end up missing something important.
This then leads to the pathologies mentioned above involving the spiritual emptiness of technology and our inability to differentiate ourselves in ways other than through aggression. This is partly because technology makes it more difficult for us – due to our laziness and cowardice – to think and create for ourselves. We can be easily lulled into using pre-established means to ‘express’ ourselves. The spiritual emptiness of these well-worn grooves leads to our inability to recognize others in their individuality – which we ourselves are unable to create. Others become a means to make us feel less alone (“I have hundred of ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ on Facebook”) and a way to enhance our own vanity (the ‘selfie’) and narcissism through the echo of ‘the daily me’ (Cf Cass Sunstein Republic.com 2.0 Ch. 1; also, this interesting talk by Simon Blackburn entitled “From the Self to the Selfie”).
The other possibility for recognition – the non-alienating possibility – takes place in a real community through genuine acts of self-creation. The recognition of the other as other, as the individual that they are/create. In this way we can achieve identity in difference. This is only done through each person developing themselves through experiencing unique and difficult situations.
The anxiety here, again, has a lot to do with how our ‘laziness and cowardliness’ will lead us to take the path of least resistance. The taking of these well-worn paths reduces self-activity and creativity and increases aggressiveness towards ourselves and others. Such increasingly numerous paths create a valueless desert landscape. So how are we supposed to really value anything if everything is increasingly the same, e.g., the eternal return of the same computer generated pop song. Nietzsche warned: “The desert grows: woe to him who harbors deserts!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra “Among Daughters of the Desert” 2).